Bells Toll and Shofars Blow in Memory of Four Innocents Who Lost Their Lives to Hate

At 10:22 on the morning of Sunday, September 15, 1963, a powerful dynamite blast tore through Birmingham, Alabama’s 16th Street Baptist Church, instantly razing it to rocks and debris. At the epicenter of the explosion were four young Black girls who a moment earlier had been chatting and laughing as they got ready for their roles in the day’s service.

The Four Spirits (2013) by Elizabeth MacQueen, Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham, Alabama (Photo by Ron Cogswell, Creative Commons 2.0)

Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Addie Mae Collins—preparing for “Youth Day” in the historic Black church—were victims of white supremacy, a dying creed of hatred. Less than three weeks earlier a quarter-million souls had gathered in the nation’s capital to decry the systemic injustice that would spawn the children’s martyrdom, and heard Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver his I Have A Dream speech. And just five days before the blast, a court order ending Birmingham’s separate and unequal public school policy forced open the doors of the city’s formerly all-white schools to Black children.

The heinous act, characterized by the FBI as “a clear act of racial hatred,” opened the nation’s eyes to the evil in its midst. Four innocents in a house of worship, murdered for the crime of being alive.

It would take 14 years to try and convict the first of the four Ku Klux Klansmen responsible for the murders, and another 14 and 15 to convict the second and third (the fourth suspect died in 1994 and was never charged).

Precisely 60 years later, at 10:22 on the morning of Friday, September 15, 2023, a Birmingham synagogue marked the moment with four blasts of the shofar. At the same moment, churches in the city rang their bells four times.

The town, once known as “Bombingham,” for its routine and rarely punished hate crimes against African Americans, hosted events honoring the 16th Street Church bombing victims and educating attendees on the civil rights uprising that followed in that tragedy’s wake.

The events include discussions on healing from racial trauma, an international peace conference and an exhibition of work by the late photographer Chris McNair, the father of Denise McNair, who, at 11, was the youngest child killed. The morning of September 15, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson delivered a keynote address at the rebuilt 16th Street Baptist Church and listened as the names of the four girls were read and bells tolled for each. In attendance as Justice Jackson spoke was one who was present at the bombing—Sarah Collins Rudolph, older sister of Addie Mae Collins, who sustained severe injuries but unlike her sibling, survived the attack.

“Yes, our past is filled with too much violence, too much hatred, too much prejudice, but can we really say that we are not confronting those same evils now?” Jackson asked. “We have to own even the darkest parts of our past, understand them and vow never to repeat them.”

She added, “Just as we always have, we will honor those four little girls and all of the historical figures who have paid the ultimate price for our freedom by vigorously upholding the Constitution of the United States and the fundamental principles of our union."

Nine months before the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, Alabama governor George Wallace stood in the place “where once Jefferson Davis stood,” and “from this Cradle of the Confederacy, this very Heart of the Great Anglo-Saxon Southland,” proclaimed, “Segregation today. . .segregation tomorrow. . .segregation forever.”

When news reached Dr. King of the church bombing, he fired off a telegram to Wallace: “The blood of our little children is on your hands.”

A few days later Dr. King delivered the eulogy at funeral services attended by 8,000 people. After thundering against “every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows” and “every politician who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism,” his tone softened.

“God still has a way of wringing good out of evil,” he said. “History has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as the redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city. The holy Scripture says, ‘A little child shall lead them.’ The death of these little children may lead our whole Southland from the low roar of man's inhumanity to man to the high road of peace and brotherhood. These tragic deaths may lead our nation to substitute an aristocracy of character for an aristocracy of color. The spilt blood of these innocent girls may cause the whole citizenry of Birmingham to transform the negative extremes of a dark past into the positive extremes of a bright future.”


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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Birmingham U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson The Four Spirits 16th Street Church bombing victims